A month ago, a young woman by the name of Vida Movahed stood on a telephone exchange box on Tehran’s Enghelab (“Revolution”) Street, tied her white shawl to a stick and waved it in the air in protest against forced hijab.
She became known as the Revolution Woman, and soon other young women in several cities across Iran were following her example.
But these acts of civil disobedience did not just come from women. Several men joined the movement, doing the same thing in public spaces. So far, 29 women and men have been arrested for taking part in the protests. The men have never been forced to wear hijab, but they have witnessed the suffocating consequences of gender discrimination through the women they know.
Mehdi is one of them. He tied a white shawl to a stick and waved it around in a street near his home in Tehran. He grew up in an extremely religious family and used to serve refreshments in the neighborhood mosque at the age of 14. But when he learned about Vida Movahed, he was one of the first young men to support the protest movement.
It was a Wednesday, a week after the arrest of Vida Movahed. For some, Wednesdays have become known as White Wednesdays, a day for people to show their opposition to forced hijab by wearing white scarves. Mehdi told his older brother he wanted to follow Movahed’s example and asked him to come along and take pictures of him. “But I did not tell my parents about it because they are very religious and my mother always worries about us,” he says.
So instead of asking his mother to lend him a white shawl, he borrowed one from a friend. “As I was about to do this, I felt extremely curious, as though I was going to discover something new. I was very excited.”
Mehdi has long hair so when a photograph of him was published online, many people thought he was a woman. And many people had not heard about the Revolution Woman, so they had no inkling about what he was doing. “Some friends passed by and laughed at me,” he says. “One of them thought there was a hole in the road and I was trying to warn cars, as municipality workers do. But, in any case, I did get their attention.”
But some people knew what he was doing, and had heard of the Revolution Women movement. They honked their horns to encourage him.
Doubt is Where Thinking Starts
In his interview with IranWire, Mehdi quotes from the Koran and from Nahj al-Balagha, a collection of sermons and pronouncements by Imam Ali. He also quotes Socrates, saying “doubt is where thinking starts.”
Mehdi says his own doubts started when he was a child and working at the mosque. He began to read books. He had heard the term “feminism” but had no idea what it meant.
When we speak, his first sentence is from the Koran: “Those who remain silent in the face of tyranny and injustice are tyrants themselves.” He believes that the guidelines of Islamic sharia oblige him to defend women who protest against forced hijab.
Mehdi, who is now 20, says he learned more about gender discrimination when he began to notice how girls are treated in his own extended family. He also says that he was once religious, but is now an “agnostic.” “In the Koran we have misogynic verses,” he says. He points out a verse that emphasizes the importance of learning the right lessons, but then continues: “But in the [religious] texts, a woman is a sexual toy, and when this view is turned into law, men get precedence in inheritance and blood money. I am no longer religious, but I love my family, who are religious, and I don’t want to hurt them.”
It was not only these doubts that led Mehdi to join the White Wednesdays campaign and the Revolution Women movement. “I have no sisters, but I have witnessed discrimination against my female relatives,” he explains. “The least of this [discrimination] is that they are not allowed to post a picture of their faces on their social media profiles. You can forget about protesting hijab!”
He gives another, perhaps more familiar, example: “Some of my relatives live in villages in western Iran. The girls in these villages are not allowed to leave home by themselves after 5pm. Some were forced to marry when they were 14. But worst of all is that the father, as the ruler of the family, influences his sons.”
He remembers a time when he went to the bazaar with a 19-year-old female relative and her 12-year-old brother, and the brother kept admonishing his sister about her hijab. “What does a child know about the philosophy of hijab?” says Mehdi. “When her scarf slipped a little and a few strands of her hair became visible, he would say, ‘Be careful how you behave! Adjust your scarf!’ And I have seen worse among my relatives. The girls in my family are not allowed to use Telegram after 10pm. They are constantly told: ‘What would your uncles and cousins think if they see you are online at this time of the night?’”
Mehdi believes that nobody has the right to tell somebody else what to wear. “Even a woman in a chador should not be asked why she is wearing it,” he says. “This is not right morally and it violates human rights — unless, for instance, a racist slogan appears on the dress."
He adds: "Dress is humans’ second skin. Why does nobody tell men what to wear? Women must be allowed to wear what they want as well. I am not against hijab, but against forced hijab. When a woman took this action, I found it to be my duty as a human being to support her.”
One Hand Cannot Clap
Mehdi mentions a Persian expression that says: one hand cannot clap. “So, we must join hands to do what Vida Movahed has done," he says. Voluntary hijab is only one of our demands. We must know what to aim for next — women’s health and anti-women discriminatory laws, for example. The most important thing, I believe, is to learn and to raise the awareness of parents so they can bring up free-thinking children.”
Like others who followed the example of Vida Movahed, Mehdi is afraid of being punished by the government. "Everybody is afraid of something," he says. "But I did take part in the rally outside Evin Prison to support [the imprisoned human rights and student activist] Arash Sadeghi. If you look at women’s movements in other countries you will see that all did pay a price. Why shouldn’t we pay a price? How much are our lives worth anyhow? How long must we stay silent? Those who are silent must answer this question. "Why are they more afraid than we are, we who have broken our silence?”
Mehdi compares discriminations to a “cancer” that has permeated throughout Iran. "But if we join hands, we can cure this benign tumor," he says. "It makes a big difference if men join the movement too. In Iranian folk culture, men are supposed to support women. Well, now it is time to show our support. Nobody likes to go to prison or be tortured. But if people are too afraid of this, they can tie a shawl to a stick and have a picture taken from behind them. Or they can cover their face with a piece of cloth so that they will not be recognized. Standing up in the street is not the whole thing. If you are a university professor, write something and publish it anonymously. If you are a teacher, teach your students about it and talk to their parents. Nothing is going to save us more than learning and teaching.”